Spotlight On: Sukkot’s Connections to Serviceby Leah Koenig | September 22, 2010 | 0 comments
Sukkot is an amazing holiday. The high holidays have passed in all of their sacred and somber glory, and just around the corner, a long stretch of gloomy winter awaits. It is enough to leave one feeling exhausted and even a bit melancholy.
But Sukkot – the weeklong harvest holiday that also commemorates the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert – comes as a reminder that now is the perfect time to rejoice and relax. As Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg writes on My Jewish Learning: “The release from Yom Kippur leads to the extraordinary outburst of life that is Sukkot. On this holiday, Jews are commanded to eat, drink, be happy, dance, and relish life to the fullest in celebrating the harvest and personal wealth.”
Sukkot has many ritual components that add to the holiday’s joy. Families are commanded to build a sukkah, a temporary dwelling structure that serves as their outdoor alternate universe – living room, dining room, and even bedroom – throughout the week. Seasonal produce and stuffed foods are eaten as a reminder of the harvest’s bounty and abundance. The roof on the sukkah is made from natural materials and woven loosely enough so that the stars peek through at night, where diners can sit and enjoy their glow. There is also the obligation to gather “the four species,” branches of the willow, myrtle and palm trees and a fragrant etrog (citron), and wave them as a physical symbol of celebration and thanks.
On Sukkot, Jews are obligated to invite guests into their sukkah to share in the celebration. That’s where the service connection comes in. Some families celebrate with ushpizin – a ceremony that symbolically invites historical Jewish figures like Moses, King David, Aaron, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph to join at the table. But there is also an obligation on Sukkot to “welcome the stranger” to the sukkah – including less fortunate members of the community. Some people take this literally, asking a needy neighbor or someone they know needs a sukkah to join. Other families use Sukkot as an opportunity to give charity and symbolically spread the joy of the holiday to others.
The very notion of a harvest holiday also lends itself to thinking about the blessing of having enough to eat – and the importance of helping others who don’t. Same goes for the sukkah, a temporary dwelling structure that reminds us to focus on the notion of shelter as a basic human right, but also a fragile one. There are many available resources to help people bring these conversations of justice and service into their Sukkot observance (like this one from the Religious Action Center and this one from Hillel). So however you celebrate, have a joyous and justice-filled Sukkot.